With B.C. harvest just finishing up, this episode of Bottled Up! features Okanagan-based sommelier, Emily Walker, a veteran in the wine industry who has carved a unique path for herself—her maxim being to always ask for what you want. She has built a career for herself in wine through sheer passion and curiosity, in roles that only ever seem to open up to those of us who are most fearless, and in the midst of it all, she had two beautiful children. Her position as consulting Group Sommelier for the Tap & Barrel restaurant chain allows her to balance that beautiful family life while getting right down and grape-juice dirty with the B.C. wine biz. This is Emily Walker.
Laura: Hi Emily! What a treat getting to meet you here in Penticton. It’s been a busy couple of years for you, during which you relocated from the coast to Summerland! Tell me what’s going on in your world these days?
Emily: It’s approaching the two-year mark of our move to the Okanagan and I still pinch myself that that I live here. The first year was an adjustment period but in this second year the Okanagan lifestyle—all of the motivations behind the move—really set in and became a reality. What I love most about our “small town” life in wine country is how work life, family life, and our social life have all started to blend together in different ways. Local winemakers who I knew originally through work are now family friends and our kids are in school together. It’s a tight community and a very welcoming one.
L: You’ve worked your way through some really interesting wine positions in different places around Vancouver, from being the assistant somm at C and Nu, to working as the Department Head for opening the Fairmont Pacific Rim’s Lobby Lounge for the 2010 Olympics, to advancing as Wine Director for the Four Seasons Vancouver’s restaurant, Yew. How did each of these roles play into your development and growth as a wine professional?
E: I think there’s a good list of Vancouver food and beverage professionals who cut their teeth at Harry Kambolis’ restaurants—C, NU and Raincity Grill. This was my first wine and management role in a restaurant. The one person who made the biggest impact on me during that time was Chef Robert Clark, a brilliant chef who always kind and generous with his knowledge. I doubt he has any idea how many people he’s influenced over the years.
The Fairmont Pacific Rim was an incredible learning curve; it was a big job. I look back now at some of my early wine purchasing decisions and chuckle a bit. It was sort of like handing the keys to a Rolls Royce over to someone who’d just passed their driving test. But that’s kind of been the story of my career—throw myself into the deep end and swim because sinking isn’t an option. I tend to thrive and work that much harder when I’m in a bit over my head.
My time at the Four Seasons Hotel was without a doubt where I grew my knowledge, experience and passion as a wine professional the most. Chef Ned Bell and I worked incredibly well together. We would collaborate on creating really unique and harmonious food and wine pairing experiences and Ned was always open to tweaking his culinary creations to help “make the wine shine.” We also brought the wine program from bronze to gold in the Vancouver International Wine Festival’s ‘Wine List Awards’, which was very gratifying.
L: You are currently positioned as the consulting ‘Group Sommelier’ for all the Tap & Barrel restaurants. It’s a pretty cool gig, because the wine list is 100% B.C. and only offered from the tap! Can you tell me more about what this role looks like, and how you go about putting together such a wine list?
E: Tap & Barrel is definitely the most fun and rewarding of my wine gigs to date. I’m really passionate about the concept and the whole organization of people. Our wine-on-tap program has brought me so much closer to the personalities behind the wines that we pour. With wine on tap, I have to ‘capture’ the wine before it goes into bottle and to do that you need direct connections with winemakers or owners. It’s all about relationships, timing and planning ahead. Most of the wines we serve are exclusive to our wine program so I’m often involved with the winemaker in blending or selecting a single barrel to highlight on our list. This is where being Okanagan-based has become a very clear advantage.
L: Any current favourite sippers on your list?
E: We’re about to release an exclusive Cabernet Sauvignon from LaStella. I had the opportunity to work with winemaker Severine Pinte on selecting the blend and I’m really excited about where we landed.
A current offering on our white wine list that I often reach for is another exclusive, this time from the Similkameen—Clos du Soleil Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon. This wine really profiles the natural acidity and minerality that the Similkameen region is becoming known for and the dash of Semillon (which isn’t actually noted on the menu) brings texture and lovely savoury qualities to complement the crisp fruit notes.
L: What was the spark that set you on the path of wine?
E: It was actually a serving job at ‘The Terrace’ restaurant at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in West Kelowna. I was 18 at the time and they put us through a really fantastic wine training program with an exam that you had to pass before starting the job. Being introduced for the first time to the basics of viticulture, winemaking and all of the different grape varieties was fascinating to me.
L: Is there anyone you leaned into as a mentor or guide while you developed your career in the wine industry?
E: I’ve had some great teachers. Lesley Brown (currently VP of Sales & Marketing for Okanagan Crush Pad and President of CAPS BC) was my first wine instructor and also a huge mentor early on in my career. Lesley is one of those people who always looks for opportunities to lift others up and she certainly did that for me.
L: I love Lesley! And I bet you’ll get to see more of her now that she’s working with OCP. So, since you’ve moved to Summerland, how do you find your relationship with B.C. wines has evolved?
E: I definitely feel like I have a deeper understanding of the land and the climatic differences between areas that are quite close together. When the sun sets behind Giant’s Head Mountain in Summerland but you’re staring across the lake at the Naramata Bench that’s still drenched in sunshine for hours longer, you really start to see for yourself why certain grape varieties are suited to certain areas. You become more aware of the various vineyard elevations, weather patterns and geological influences when you’re seeing it every day.
L: On a more personal note, I understand you have two children, both of which you had during your time at Four Seasons, and you currently balance your consultant position with motherhood. What was/is it like juggling the identities that go alongside a career and motherhood?
E: Initially I did struggle with the identity factor. Both my career and my profile as a sommelier were advancing around the time that I started my family. The demands of most restaurant roles don’t really coincide with the demands of newborn babies. I knew that if I wanted my career to continue along that path, I needed to do it differently. The Four Seasons was an incredible employer in that sense. They were extremely supportive and when I asked them to restructure my role so that I could return part time as wine director and hire an assistant sommelier to work the floor, they did just that. I would say that most employers (especially in the F&B world) aren’t willing to make the structural adjustments needed to allow women to balance their careers with motherhood.
L: Do you have any advice or encouragement for other women who are on the path to motherhood while working in the hospitality industry?
E: First and foremost, you have to ask for what you need. Don’t wait for an offer, be the one to present a proposal and a plan. If you’ve worked hard and proven yourself, a good employer will be supportive and open. You can absolutely be a mother and have a career in hospitality.
L: And lastly, on a bit of a side note, let’s talk about music! You have a Diploma in Contemporary Jazz, and you play as a musical duo with your Dad! Tell me more, and how can we see you perform?
E: Music has been a big part of my life since childhood. Actually, you’d be surprised at how many wine people are also musicians! My dad is a guitar player and singer/songwriter so I grew up around his music and the music of those who influenced him. I started playing piano and writing/singing my own songs when I was about 12 years old and now that my parents and I live just down the road from one another, my dad and I have been able to practice fairly regularly and started playing at wineries this summer. We both love the same style of music—it’s sort of an ‘old country/folk’ genre—stuff like John Prine, Guy Clark, Emmy Lou Harris and Bonnie Raitt. We play a mix of each other’s original tunes and a few covers here and there. Our next gig is at The Cannery Brewing in Penticton on Sunday November 10th.
L: Emmy Lou Harris is one of my favourites. I wish I could be there! Thanks for taking the time to talk, Emily. It’s been a pleasure.
Dog or cat? Both.
Negroni or Boulevardier? Negroni.
Most overhyped wine trend? Natural wine, when the wrong people attempt to do it.
Most underappreciated grape? Gamay.
What grape would your mom be? Chenin Blanc. Just because it’s my favourite.
Go-to hangover cure? A babysitter.
High school prom song? ‘Nothing else matters’ by Metallica.
Flute or coupe? White wine glass.
WSET or CMS? WSET.
@ Vitis Magazine